Affirmative action is a necessary evil, providing disadvantaged people with important opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise receive. That the admission of some less-qualified students comes at the expense of other, perhaps more deserving, students is unfortunate, yet there are plenty of other systems of privilege employed by top colleges and universities. (Just ask President G-Dub.)

Paul Wong
Joseph Litman

However, arguing about the merits and weaknesses of affirmative action neglects the real issue: Public education in this country is awful. Affirmative action only exists because too many schools – mostly found in cities disproportionately populated by the underclasses and minorities – lack the resources needed to endow their students with the knowledge and skills needed for entrance into elite colleges. If the primary and secondary schools were fixed, then the debate over affirmative action would be rendered moot, the program made superfluous. Neither the program’s staunch supporters nor its most fervent critics address this, though; those most actively involved in this struggle are completely missing the point, wrangling in the wrong direction.

How far astray is public discourse? G-Dub carries the banner for the anti-action movement, calling the University’s practices an unfair quota system. Meanwhile, a gentleman I know from BAMN routinely cites numbers that prove blacks are both unfairly discriminated against by staples of the college admissions system, like the SATs, and still excluded from the best schools under other theoretically corrective systems like the ones used in Texas and Florida. Notions of fixing our inadequate schools are buried under the avalanche of endless rhetoric and statistics.

While the University and other finer institutions of higher education are indeed populated by plenty of public-school products, the presence of such students can be misleading. How many are from schools in wealthy enclaves like the suburbs outside of places like Detroit and Chicago and New York? How many, like myself, received a public education from a magnet school where computers were plentiful, students were smart, and AP courses seemed to outnumber their pedestrian counterparts? The answer to both questions is many.

Of course there are graduates from schools actually in Detroit and other metropolises, but this group is unfortunately under-represented. Many who attend such schools are eliminated from the race before it begins.

Last year, I tutored students in Ms. Harris’ sixth-grade English class at Detroit’s Vetal Middle school. Weekly, I would return from my outings mostly depressed, dispirited by the experience. I liked the kids very much and Ms. Harris was a well-intentioned teacher. However, rarely had the kids completed their homework and even less frequently would they attentively follow the lessons in class. For her part, Ms. Harris seemed to have lost her patience and could not even appropriately explain third-person perspective. The “learning” occurred in a dreary classroom that had grates over the windows, a handful of shabby books, one malfunctioning computer and no pencils or paper.

The existence of such bleak conditions is not anomalous, though. All over the country, local public schools lack the resources necessary to properly educate students, and the many who can’t afford alternatives – tutors and private schools – are forced to learn in these substandard environments.

Americans should be embarrassed by this situation. It is shameful, and if nothing else inefficient, that we do not guarantee all citizens a quality education. Furthermore, the persistent lack of a concerted effort to ameliorate the situation illustrates a failure of altruism, an absence of compassion.

Yes, occasionally school budgets go up and programs are created to recruit better teachers, but both are not nearly sincere or effective enough. And, don’t even mention vouchers, a sure circumvention of the real problem. Can’t fix the schools? Let’s just not go to them.

To really make public education what it should be, all states should follow the lead of Minnesota, and adopt region-based revenue sharing to reappropriate money in a way that ensures greater equity between urban and suburban public school funding.

I fully understand that this romantic idea is as likely as me becoming pope. In states like California, for instance, where property values are king, such a system would likely incite class warfare. However, until a concerted effort like the one proposed is adopted by this nation, affirmative action and its cousins will continue to be suggested as means to level a constantly skewed playing field. You all can now resume your misguided fight.

Joseph Litman can be reached at litmanj@umich.edu.

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